The Chilbury Ladies Choir: A Novel, by Jennifer Ryan — A Review

The Chilbury Ladies Choir x 200Set in an English country village at the onset of WWII, The Chilbury Ladies Choir is told through letters and journal and diary entries by four female characters who are faced with keeping the home fires burning while their menfolk are off fighting Nazis. The first-person format intrigued me, and the subject sounded promising. However, it was the anticipation of escaping into the lives of “three or four families in a country village” that really hooked me. If English-born author Jennifer Ryan could dish out endearing and foibled characters I was in for a great read.

Ominously, the novel begins with the funeral of Commander Edmund Winthrop, the first casualty of the war from this tight-knit community. The reality of his death hits the remaining residents hard, coupled with the fact that the vicar decided to close the church choir due to the lack of male voices. The ladies rebel. They are done with being told what to do by the few men remaining. Disobeying the vicar, they form the Chilbury Ladies Choir led by Miss Primrose Trent, a music tutor from the local university.

“First, they whisk our men away to fight, then they force us women into work, then they ration food, and now they’re closing our choir. By the time the Nazis get here there’ll be nothing left except a bunch of drab women ready to surrender.” Mrs. Brampton-Boyd (3)

The demise of Edmund sets off a chain of events that will ripple throughout the course of the novel. As the sole male heir to Chilbury Manor, he was set to inherit the family pile. His overbearing father, a retired brigadier prone to bursts of outrage and indignation, is determined to keep the property in the family. To ensure that his pregnant wife delivers a male heir, he engages the services of the dodgy local midwife Miss Edwina Paltry to orchestrate a baby-swapping scheme.

Another key character sharing the narrative is Mrs. Margaret Tilling, a timid middle-aged widow whose only child is preparing to leave for the front lines in France. And then there’s the Winthrop sisters: Venetia and Kitty. At eighteen and thirteen-years-old respectively, they have a lot on their plate and even more to write about to their best friend in London and in their diary. Their not-so-beloved bother has just been killed—blown up in a submarine in the North Sea; their pushing middle-age mother is miraculously pregnant; all the illegible men are away at war; there are food and clothing rationing, which means there is no sugar or new frocks to be had; and their tyrant of a father—well, he is just fuming about everything.

“Music takes us out of ourselves, away from our worries and tragedies, helps us look into a different world, a bigger picture. All those cadences and beautiful chord changes, every one of them makes you feel a different splendor of life. Prim Trent (104)

Through the letters and diaries, we engage with the characters as they share the everyday events and challenges of their lives. Each of the four ladies has their own set of problems yet they are intertwined with each other. Ryan has chosen a range of ages and social strata of the characters varying the perspective of voices as the main narrators of her drama. In addition to the humorous events surrounding Miss Paltry’s hyperbolic baby-swapping scheme, Venetia, the local “accomplished flirt,” who had multiple men pursuing her before they departed for the war, is involved with the one young man left in the village, an rakish artist who appears to be involved in the black market and other activities of national security; Mrs. Tilling, on the other hand, is required to house a gentleman working at a local war defense think tank; while Kitty suffers teen romance angst and dreams of becoming a professional singer. The one constant in their lives during a time of uncertainty is the choir. When they sing together all their troubles melt away and they feel joy again.

Thwarting my concerns, Ryan succeeds in conveying the immediacy of each character’s impressions and emotions through her clever use of melodrama. This is a high-energy novel. There is always something new to prompt us to turn the page! I also found that the strength of this novel lies in her skill at building unique characterizations—people whose personalities we can identify with through personal experience or from the pages of fiction. While the outcome of Mrs. Paltry’s machinations is predictable, (and in turn thoroughly amusing for this reader), I was delighted by the character arc of Mrs. Tilling who represents how subjugated women were before the war, and of the shallow, vain Venetia, whose value shifts were the biggest surprise.

“Perhaps there is something good that has come from this war: everything has been turned around, all the unfairness made grimly plain. It has given us everyday women a voice—dared us to stand up for ourselves, and to stand up for others.” Mrs. Tilling (168-169)

I listened to the audio recording while I read this book, an engaging feature on my Kindle that brought the story vividly to life by an excellent ensemble of five narrators. I do not often mention artwork or book design in my reviews; however, the cover is so stunning it earned my sincere admiration. In addition, I was delighted to find a hand-drawn map of Chilbury village on the endpapers which I studied intently. (I adore maps in books).

In turns comical, tragic, and joyous, The Chilbury Ladies Choir soars like a crescendo of a classic English hymn, rousing our emotions, lifting our spirits, and transporting us onto a different plain—I recommend it highly. I am looking forward to reading Ryan’s next novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane, which was released in June 2019.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Chilbury Ladies Choir: A Novel, by Jennifer Ryan
Crown Publishing Group (2017)
Hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, and audiobook (432) pages
ISBN: 978-1101906774

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound | Goodreads

Disclosure of Material Connection: We purchased a copy of the eBook and the audiobook for our own enjoyment. We only review products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Cover image courtesy of Crown (Penguin Random House) © 2017; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2019, Austenprose.com

 

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors: A Novel, by Sonali Dev—A Review

Pride Prejudice and Other Flavors 2019 x 200Recently I pulled Pemberley, or Pride and Prejudice Continued, by Emma Tennant off my bookshelf. I was feeling nostalgic after looking at my “to be read” pile of new Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice retellings that have or will hit bookstores this year. It was one of the first P&P inspired novels that I read way back in 2002. Published in 1993, the author was forging virgin territory. At this point there were very few Austen-inspired books in print and readers did not know what to expect. It received a tepid reception from critics and the public. One recent Amazon reviewer called it “a real nightmare.” Ouch! You can read my detailed review of Pemberley from 2013, or read it and decide for yourself.

Since Tennant’s Austenesque-trek to boldly go where no author dared to go, there have been hundreds, possibly thousands, of Pride and Prejudice prequels, sequels, continuations, and inspired-by books. Recently we are in a retelling cycle—all presented with an ethnic twist. Last year we had Pride, by Ibi Zoboi, a contemporary retelling of Austen’s classic hate/love romance set in Brooklyn, NY featuring an all-black cast of characters. This year we have three new novels: Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal set in 2000 in Pakistan; Ayesha at Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin in which Darcy and Lizzy are transported to contemporary Canada featuring Muslim characters; and Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, which after this long and winding introduction is the book I will discuss today.

Another contemporary retelling, PPAOF is set in the “bay area” of San Francisco, California. Loosely based on Jane Austen’s spikey romance where the roles of the rich, proud Fitzwilliam Darcy and the much-less-rich, prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet are reversed. Meet Dr. Trisha Raje, a brilliant thirty-something neurosurgeon specializing in cutting-edge microsurgery at a prominent hospital, who also happens to be an Indian Princess by default. Her father was the second son of the royal line of an Indian Principality which is no longer in power. When he immigrated to the US, his wealth and royal mien came with him. At the premature death of his older brother, he became HRM in name only. The family live like royalty in their Woodside estate with multiple servants and the exotic air of old-world nobility with all its privileges and baggage. Even though Trisha is a successful and highly prestigious doctor she is a disappointment to her parents, who cannot forgive her for a fifteen-year-old social faux pas against her brother, a rising Politician, and, the fact that she remains unmarried. Continue reading

Lost Roses: A Novel, by Martha Hall Kelly – A Review

Lost Roses 2019 x 200Are there any historical fiction readers out there who have not read the insanely popular Lilac Girls yet? Hello!

Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel was published in 2016 – and like all book fledglings was sent out into the world with high hopes. Early reviews were rather mixed, but it hit the NY Times bestseller list immediately, a phenomenon for a debut novel. It has become one of those rare books in publishing that has an enormous wingspan, remaining on the bestseller lists for years.

One cannot even imagine the pressure on Kelly’s shoulders to produce her second novel, Lost Roses, released last month by Ballantine Books. A prequel to Lilac Girls, many of her readers will have high expectations. If she was smart, she would stick to her winning formula: base the story on real-life women facing challenges during historical events; transport readers into their lives and times through first-person narratives that are impeccably researched; offer page turning-prose that keeps you up into the wee hours; and finally, develop characters that we can empathize and care about. A very tall order, indeed.

Again, the story features a tryptic of women struggling on the home front during a world war. Lilac Girls introduced us to Caroline Ferriday in the 1940’s WWII. Lost Roses begins a generation earlier in pre-WWI and features Caroline’s mother Eliza Ferriday, an American socialite and philanthropist, her friend Sofya Streshnayva, a Russian aristocrat, and Varinka Kozlov, a Russian peasant. Continue reading

A Modest Independence: Parish Orphans of Devon Book 2, by Mimi Matthews – A Review

A Modest Independence Matthews 2019 x 200The second book in the Parish Orphans of Devon series is a historical romance road trip novel with an intriguing premise; can two unlikely companions travel together from London to India under false pretense to join forces to find a lost friend?

In A Modest Independence, author Mimi Matthews’ explores an improbable romance of an impertinent, strong-willed woman and an equally independent bachelor who are thrown together under eyebrow-raising circumstances. There are so many impediments to their success, on several levels, that I was compelled to discover if they could overcome all the obstacles that the author had placed in their path.

Starting in Victorian-era London, England we meet spirited heroine Jenny Holloway who has recently come into a small fortune. Determined to remain independent and never marry, she wishes to travel to India to find the Earl of Castleton, the missing brother of the woman who gave her a modest independence. Her attorney Tom Finchley, who holds her purse strings, is concerned for her safety and hesitant to release her funds so she can travel. Raised in a Devon orphanage, he is a self-made man who now has a very prosperous London practice. We were introduced to this couple as supporting characters in the first book in the series, The Matrimonial Advertisement. Tom harbors feelings for Jenny and decides to travel with her to protect her, help her find the missing brother, and explore the possibility of a romance. Continue reading

That Churchill Woman: A Novel, by Stephanie Barron – A Review

that churchill woman barron 2019 x 200Between 1870 and 1914, there were at least a hundred marriages of American heiresses to British peers. Fueled by microeconomics—supply and demand—American industrial tycoons bought position, prestige and coronets by bartering their daughter’s dowries to cash-strapped aristocrats. One transatlantic trade was Brooklynn born Jeanette “Jennie” Jerome. In 1874 she became one of the first “dollar princesses” when she married Lord Randolph Churchill, the third son of the Duke of Marlborough. Her wildly rich father reputedly paid a dowry equaling 4.3 million dollars in current currency. What a way to start a life-long marriage—and what delectable fodder for this new biographical fiction of Jennie’s life, That Churchill Woman, by Stephanie Barron.

Lady Randolph Churchill is one of those larger-than-life women from history whom we look upon with shock and awe. Most people will know her as the scandalous American mother of Winston Churchill, the famous politician and prime minister of Great Britain, however there is so much more to know about this intelligent, fiercely independent woman. Born in 1854 into wealth, privilege and the excess that it generates, she was raised in New York City, Newport, Rhode Island and Paris. Her childhood was colored by her parents Leonard Jerome and Clarissa “Clara” nee Hall’s Victorian marriage. He was a notorious womanizer. She turned the other cheek and befriended his long-time mistress Fanny Ronalds. When the affair finally ended the two women banded together, left their respective husbands, and sailed for Paris with their children.

Another significant event in her early life was the death of her younger sister Camille when she was nine. Devastated by the loss, her father consoled his young daughter with sage advice: “The only way to fight death, Jennie, is to live. You’ve got to do it for two people now—yourself and Camille. Take every chance you get. Do everything she didn’t get to do. Live two lives in the space of one. I’ll back you to the hilt.” Continue reading

A Very Austen Valentine Blog Tour: Author Interview with Robin Helm, Laura Hile, and Wendi Sotis

a very austen valentine book 2 x 200Just in time for Valentine’s Day on February fourteenth, a new Jane Austen-inspired anthology has been published to fill our romantic hearts with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet and many other characters from Austen’s beloved novels. A Very Austen Valentine contains six novellas by popular Austenesque authors: Robin Helm, Laura Hile, Wendi Sotis, Barbara Cornthwaite, Susan Kaye and Mandy H. Cook and includes stories inspired by Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility. Featuring many of our favorite characters, readers will find sequels, adaptations, and spin offs of Austen’s works in this new book.

I am very happy to welcome three of the A Very Austen Valentine authors to Austenprose today. They have kindly agreed to an interview.

Welcome ladies. Here are a few questions to introduce us to your new anthology, your writing process and philosophies, and an opportunity to tell us about your next project.

Can you share your inspiration for this Austen-inspired anthology?

Laura: Several years ago Robin Helm and I talked about putting together an anthology – no small feat, as Laurel Ann knows (Jane Austen Made Me Do It) – and last Christmas we banded together with Wendi Sotis and Barbara Cornthwaite to release our first. Who knew that Jane Austen and Christmas would combine so well? Our readers, that’s who! We were overwhelmed by the response to A Very Austen Christmas. Next, we decided to take on Valentine’s Day. This holiday was not widely popular during the Regency, but when we found extant Valentine cards from the period, we were off and running. A Very Austen Valentine is the result.

We call our anthologies “books that friendship built” because, this is absolutely true. They are our way of introducing our writing friends to our reading friends – like you. We plan to include guest authors in each. Susan Kaye (Frederick Wentworth, Captain Series) and Mandy H. Cook (The Gifted) are with us for this one. Continue reading

Unmarriageable: A Novel, by Soniah Kamal – A Review

unmarriageable kamal 2019 x 200It is a truth universally acknowledged that readers and writers are obsessed with Pride and Prejudice. Since Sybil G. Brinton’s 1913 Old Friends and New Fancies, the first original Jane Austen-inspired novel, there have been thousands of prequels, sequels, and variations penned by those who wish to never let the characters quietly rest in literary heaven. Next up for our praise or censure is Unmarriageable, a retelling set in Pakistan in 2000 by Soniah Kamal. Never one to suffer Austen renovators gladly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

Over the years I have read and reviewed many P&P inspired books containing a variety of themes including: zombie bedlam, religious conversion, S&M and slash fiction. There have also been some retellings that I really enjoyed, yet I yearned for the full story retold in a fresh and reverent light. It’s the Holy Grail of Austen fandom. Could moving the story to Pakistan at the turn of the twenty-first century be the opportunity to explore southern Asian culture infused with Jane Austen’s story of reproof and redemption? If so, it would be catnip to Janeites!

Unmarriageable’s premise and opening chapters were immediately promising. Kamal had converted Austen’s characters into clever doppelgangers of her Regency equivalents: the Bennet family became the Binats with sisters Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia becoming Jenazba, Alysba, Marizba, Qittyara, and Lady respectively. After being introduced to the Bennet family, whose financial and social position had fallen subsequent to a scandal that destroyed their fortune, the anticipation of meeting Mr. Darcy, now transformed into Mr. Darsee (snort), was quenched by the modern interpretation exhibiting all of the noble mien of the original—rich, proud, and dishy. ZING! Continue reading